“It is a system, stupid!”

Luca Silipo
4 min readMar 4, 2022

How systems thinking could have prevented the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Photo by Vadim Ghirda / AP

Descartes and Newton believed that the parts explain the whole. Imagine eating at a three-star Michelin restaurant and having just tasted the most wonderful dish. You know the restaurant owner, and you beg her to introduce you to the chef. And the chef tells you the exact composition of her masterpiece: to the gram, the precise amount of each ingredient you need to re-create the dish. But would you really be able to? No, because cooking is a system.

What is a system? It is a set of interconnected dimensions that yield a situation, a state. This state is not determined uniquely by the simple stacking of different dimensions but by the dynamic relationship between them. You have the ingredients, precisely weighted: will their combination uniquely yield one dish? No. The order in which you add each ingredient can be different (in a system, the sequence of events matters), and so are the different states you add them (should I whisk the cream first? separate the eggs? melt the dry yeast?).

A parent receives Alice’s grades card. She got a B- in Math. Should they be proud? It depends because the parent, Alice, and her school form a system — or in this case, a system of systems — where interconnections that link the system’s agents yield B- in Math. B- is the result of the state of each element in the system and the sequence of past interactions between them. And in turn, B- will provoke other feedbacks in the system that are also time- and state-dependent. The parent would be happy if Alice’s grade last term was D+; the girl would be proud if her math teacher is extremely demanding; the teacher has maybe opted for B- considering the student’s peculiar family situation. All these changes will trigger other changes in the system, yielding to next term’s math grade.

All this is so straightforward that it is puzzling and maddening that the persistence of non-systems thinking leads to major catastrophes such as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Of course, the roots of the conflict are related to historical developments. Yet, the eruption of the conflict in this particular moment is a result of non-system strategy setting.

To see how, consider the system that links ecology, economics, geopolitics, society. At each…

Luca Silipo

I am an economist and author dedicated to finding applicable solutions to achieve social sustainability while preserving economic growth.